Football: Good-hearted people behind United romance

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The Independent Online
SHE WILL not forgive me for saying so, but I have known Kath for nearly 30 years now. She always has the same friendly greeting, be it on the telephone or in person. "Hello love, how are you?"

Over this period, of course, she has seen many changes. As the telephonist/receptionist she occupies a good vantage point.

The patriarch who initially guided the company to success died a few years ago. Folk came from all over the world to mourn his passing.

Then the board of directors, realising they had a "global brand name," tried to sell it to an international conglomerate before the Government surprisingly stepped in to block the deal. But not before the conglomerate's UK chief executive exposed himself to some scorn by revealing an ignorance of his target's key performers.

And now Kath's firm is challenging for new records. The current manager is threatening to scale even higher peaks than his illustrious predecessor.

However, she retains the ready smile and warm welcome which, more than anything else, epitomise the heart of Manchester United and the memory of Sir Matt Busby.

Like Alex Ferguson now, Sir Matt appreciated the value of people. He knew they were the inner soul of the club and always had a word for everybody even in the darkest times.

How proud the old man would have been last week as Ferguson took United to a second European Cup final! I have never seen happier eyes than Sir Matt's as Steve Bruce raised the first Championship trophy at Old Trafford for 26 years in 1993.

In management his benevolent demeanour had masked a fierce pride and steely determination. He would staunchly defend his young charges in public, but privately none of them relished a call to his office if they had transgressed. Nobody loved flair more, but he appreciated that Nobby Stiles or Bill Foulkes first had to win the ball.

Sir Matt was a club director during most of those 26 years of frustration for the Old Trafford faithful. Though disappointed at the failure to reach the pinnacle again, he was always supportive of his successors after Wilf McGuinness, the first such, had found it impossible to build his own team from within.

From the boardroom Busby handled the vagaries of United's form in the same way as he resolved the problem of a stray drive on the golf course (of which he was guilty of more than a few!). "Oh, Jeez" he would say, "never mind, boys, I'll just play another one." He believed the next match or shot would always be better.

Despite being a Blackpool supporter, I had driven my old banger to Wembley to watch Busby's Manchester United overwhelm Benfica in 1968. My mates tried to get to as many big games as possible in those days, no matter whom they supported. Has that disappeared from football? I suppose the tickets are not available anyway.

Sir Matt had originally taken Manchester United into Europe in the face of opposition from the game's authorities, so the victory in 1968 was particularly sweet. In the meantime, of course, the Munich air tragedy had devastated the club, forcing Busby and his Welsh assistant, Jimmy Murphy, to rebuild almost from scratch.

Sir Bobby Charlton followed Sir Matt into the United boardroom. Charlton is someone who cannot walk past a football without caressing it on his instep. He used to resent the cricket season as an unnecessary intrusion. Last Wednesday he will have kicked every ball, and jumped for every header (it is probably stretching the imagination to suggest he contested every tackle!).

In the afterglow of the triumph over Juventus, Tommy Docherty, a former Manchester United manager himself, was (only momentarily) lost for words when asked on the radio how many of the present team would have made a best-ever United XI.

I would start with Peter Schmeichel, and I doubt whether many would disagree. My selection would read: Schmeichel, Johnny Carey, Roger Byrne, Eddie Colman, Jaap Stam, Duncan Edwards, George Best, Charlton, Denis Law, Eric Cantona and Ryan Giggs.

But I would not care to debate the choice with Roy Keane or Bryan Robson. Moreover, any such exercise renders meaningless the team spirit and collectiveness which so characterises the present team and which was so crucial in enabling United to reach next month's European Cup final.

Kath will be a bit busy for a few weeks; I hope she has time to shop for her suncream. And I hope Alex Ferguson reinforces his claim to follow Sir Matt and Sir Bobby to Buckingham Palace.

Maybe Martin Edwards and his plc colleagues have got it right after all, by managing to retain the heart and soul of the club in the midst of today's corporate mega-millions.